Having published Repentance yesterday today seems a good time to discuss themes. Originally Repentance and The Mason’s Arms were written together and re-reading them before I posted them I noticed reoccurring themes about guilt, grief and general regret. These themes seem to pop up a lot in my work but I never planned it as such. As far as I’m concerned themes should come from story, not story from themes.
Overall I don’t plan, unless you include a vague notion of beginning and end, I prefer to write and experiment and see what happens which can sometimes get me tangled in knots but usually works better for me than planning. When I have tried writing based on a theme I tend to get myself stuck in a hole with only a spoon to dig myself out but I’m not going to tell you that you can’t write a story based around a theme. As I keep repeating nobody has a right to tell you how to write, you have every right to base your story on a theme, I’m merely observing that in my experience writing to a theme is hard, but that might be because it’s not my natural inclination and it might work better for you.
There are quite a few writers I have discussed writing by theme with and they seem find it more difficult to write in bulk than I do, but that might simply be because they know the path they’re on so they’re not going on side jaunts among the bracken. The main problem I had when I tried writing to a theme was that I started wondering ‘does this fit the theme?’ not ‘does this fit the story?’ My problem might also have something to do with the fact that the average novel is between 70,000 to 80,000 words long, which is a lot to structure around a theme, especially if you’re not inclined to planning.
Don’t let my experience daunt you though, I’m not saying planning out themes for a novel doesn’t work, for some people it does work very well. I would suggest experimenting to find what works for you because we all have different creative processes, other people can only suggest different methods for you to try that you might not have considered. I would say it is important to bear all this in mind when you’re writing if you get stuck, sometimes you just need to approach things from a different angle.
Now I’ve picked planning apart I’m going to have to admit that my vague approach isn’t all clear skies. Only having a vague notion of where you start and where you end can make it difficult to find where to start at all and other times it all gets in a tangle because I’m not sure where I’m going or how to get there. I’ve got plenty of drafts of things without endings because I’ve had to go back a ways or even all the way to the beginning to find the story again. Sometimes it’s a bit like going for a walk in the country and running out of signposts so you have wander around a bit until you find the path or go back the way you came. I don’t think I have ever come across a writer who has a fool proof writing method, even the most productive writers can struggle some days.
Whichever path you take remember you don’t have to get it right the first time, a first draft is just that. Usually I find that while meandering around a first draft themes tend to appear and editing is the time to refine these as much as anything else, particularly if you’re very interested in bringing themes to the fore (more on editing in later articles). As I said in my introduction, despite not been a theme writer myself, looking at the Short Story section themes will out in the end whether you aim for them or not.
While on a discussion of theme, I noticed something I found interesting while watching an interview reel (external YouTube link) about Sam Shepherd’s play Ages of The Moon, originally performed at the Abbey Theatre. There was a moment where Stephen Rea mentioned Samuel Beckett as an influence on Shepherd and said, as someone who worked with Beckett, that he ‘wasn’t interested in meaning, only in rhythm’(1.56). The video is tagged as 2009 and which point I was at university studying the meaning of Beckett, which goes to show that even if you don’t focus of themes people will infer them for you.